I don’t know why they think punting is so peaceful. The first time I go we are in a hurry to get to the river for lunch and champagne, so we make a rushed tour of the covered market picking up tomatoes and cheese and fresh bread before stopping by Oddbins for prosecco and plastic cups and then we literally run along the fringe of Christ Church Meadow until we see our party, who are reclining in the pink boat looking bored and hungry.
“God, we’re hungry,” they say, so we toss them our load and scurry in. There is a frenzy of gnashing teeth as we scramble to fill our bellies; which is nice enough until the swans start joining in. One of them nearly leaps into the boat in an effort to snatch a crumb from our hostess’ hand. At least it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, I think to myself. It is only when all the food has been eaten and we are simply finishing the booze that it starts to seem remotely relaxing. I think I could drift asleep like this, except that the swans swarming make me uneasy.
Finally we figure we’d best set off to get to the bridge so that we don’t miss a train that we’re meant to be catching, which adds a sense of urgency to the whole production. My love punts, and I am facing away from him, which means I don’t even have the luxury of looking into his dreamy eyes as I soak up sun and champagne along the way; and the going is slow, marked by the drumbeat of the punting pole slapping against the bottom of the river. By the time we get to Folly Bridge and disembark (without grace or dignity, scuttling and balancing) we are officially late for the train, so we have to jog all the way to the station, and then run for the train, and as I am leaping down the stairs two-at-a-time to the platform the strap of my bag breaks and everything goes tumbling away from me. I am sweaty and flustered on the train; I snap at my poor love, and then feel bad, and blame punting.
The second time we go out it is a family affair; a birthday, which is inherently stressful, made even more so by the fact that this is only the second or third time I have met my love’s family, really, and now we are about to be trapped in a very small boat together. All seems to be going well: the flowers I bought are thankfully not pink, his mother’s least favorite colour; we have brought fresh fruit and Pimms, the weather is pleasant and the evening light glorious. But as we approach Marston Ferry Road, about to pass under the bridge, we are suddenly assaulted by a spray of air rifle pellets, launched by a gaggle of teenage boys on bicycles who are engaged in a shouting match with a group of drunk punters beside us.
My love, having a very well developed sense of the moral, considers it his duty to ring the police–so there he is, balancing at the Oxford end of the boat, pole in hand, deftly preventing us from running adrift whilst mostly also avoiding the tangle of bushes and branches by the riverbank, on his mobile phone, trying to describe our whereabouts—which, given that we are at a major crossroads, shouldn’t be difficult, but is, apparently.
“Marston Ferry Road,” he says, again, sounding a little incredulous. “Yes, the river. No, they’ve cycled down the path, but you should be able to catch them up—yes, Marston Ferry—”
They tell him they’ll be there shortly, so we wait, while all around us dusk and silence settles. I sip my Pimms; they were only air rifles, but the idea of being preyed upon while in such a vulnerable position haunts me, a little, and uneasiness begins to creep in. Luckily there aren’t any swans nearby, and anyway, I think, the police will arrive soon, and then we can be on our way, where a nice warm meal awaits.
Thirty minutes later the police have not arrived, and a small war wages on the boat: half the passengers in favour of continuing to wait, the other half in favour of simply punting back to shore. I come down somewhere in the middle: vaguely aware both of a sense of perverse duty, and growing discomfort, I simply keep quiet, and chew on some fruit from the bottom of my cup, while everyone else gets increasingly agitated. By the time we do get back to shore we have waited another ten minutes, seen a few police who tell us the culprits are nowhere to be seen (they’ve had enough time to get all the way across town, I think bitterly), and battled off a pair of extraordinarily intrusive swans that keep threatening to peck at our arms over the sides of the boat. I can’t say I’m exactly sorry to climb back onto the quay, from which point the punts look all candy colored and cozy.
In Gaudy Night, it didn’t happen like that, I think, not exactly bitterly, but with a certain degree of amusement. Harriet and Lord Peter simply floated serenely down the river. She watched him drowse, and bathed in the sunlight, and read florid passages from scholarly books, and he, poor sod, caught up on much needed sleep. I picture the light as being dappled, the trees green, the mood whimsical and steeped in a mixture of profound nostalgia and forward-looking exhilaration (they are in love, after all): so that Harriet can say things like, “Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?”, and Lord Peter can respond both flippantly and thoughtfully: “So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober. Which accounts for my talking so much.” I, for one, have never been tempted to say anything of the sort on a punt.
But I am being unfair to the sport, perhaps. My objection to punting is no objection at all: I merely find myself continually surprised at the stressful nature of a legendarily leisurely pursuit. Then I wonder, is it me? Do I put the anxiety into an afternoon? You can see how this kind of thinking might get one nowhere: trapped in an eddy of self-doubt.
If I want punting to be something other than what it is for me, it is only because I enjoyed it so well the hundreds of times I did it in my imagination; yet all the literary (not literal) punting in the world cannot, I suppose, make up for a few real romps down a slightly less perfect river. And somewhere, as there always is, is overlap: that brief moment between lunch and rush my first time on a punt, snuggled into someone else’s strong, tweed-clad arms, when the sun was coming through the trees in the precise way I felt it should be and the mood was almost whimsical; the elegance of Pimms sipped from tall glasses, even despite the incongruity of the small blue boy across from me (my love’s younger brother, not exactly a small boy anymore but distinctly blue-haired) and the unnerving proximity of a vicious pair of birds. There is always overlap, I find: a confluence of ideals with actuality—the result being something far more authentic than you could ever make it be in nostalgic recreation, or jaded, black and white portrait.
But then again, because I am merely representing the place of Oxford, the experience of punting—perhaps I too risk losing that true authenticity to some whim of my own imagination—I don’t know.
(And if you wonder why I write this when the day feels cold and wet, when hail and rain are storming down and a hot cup of tea and a woolen jumper are the only appropriate accessories–it is because this morning, on my way to work, I think I tasted Spring, my bones felt warmth, and then my whole being ached for a languorous afternoon to play with, to punt away)
*From Pegasus in the Botanical Gardens by Anne Ridler